Why rethink speech?

Photo credit: Brian Smithson

Phonetic science has made many important discoveries about the nature of speech and how it works.

The thing is, hardly anyone knows about them. Which is interesting — it’s not like scientists have been trying to keep them secret!

So here’s an important but often overlooked question:

Why do so few know the findings of phonetic science?

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How to rethink speech

Image from Pixabay

Rethink speech aims to help you rethink our society’s harmful false beliefs about speech by fast-tracking you to advanced findings of phonetic science.

That’s quite a challenge — for all concerned!

How are we going to achieve it?

Well, not by telling you lots of new facts about speech: that’s the slow lane.

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Who needs to rethink speech?

woman pointing finger at you
Image from Pixabay

What makes us sad at Rethink Speech is when the people who most need to rethink speech walk away from it, thinking it is a course for phonetics students – which is not right at all.

Rethink Speech is designed for some very specific kinds of people

Read on to see what kind – you might be surprised to discover you are one of them!

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Will you like Rethink Speech?

cinderella
Will Rethink Speech fit you like Cinderella’s slipper? (Image from Wikipedia)

Rethink Speech aims to help you replace our society’s harmful false beliefs about speech with reliable knowledge.

Sounds like a noble calling – but is it something *I* want to spend my time on?

Maybe this page will help you decide if Rethink Speech is a good fit for you.

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How Rethink Speech works

Image from Pixabay

Rethink Speech offers a range of (free) modules designed to help you rethink some of our society’s false beliefs about the nature of speech and how it works.

Fair enough – but what are modules??

Rethink Speech modules are structured sequences of 6-10 topics, mostly intriguing multimedia demonstrations that typically take about 15 minutes each to work through.

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What does it mean to ‘rethink’ something?

rethink

Rethink Speech aims to help our society to rethink its ‘common knowledge’ about speech.

But what exactly does that mean?

‘Rethinking’ is quite a popular concept these day, and you undoubtedly have a good understanding of it. But let’s run through a few key ideas about rethinking in general that are worth keeping in focus, before looking at what is involved in rethinking speech.

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Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Do I need a background in phonetics?

You definitely do not need any background in phonetics. However if you do have a background in phonetics, Rethink Speech will still be interesting and useful to you. Rethink Speech presents information that is well known within phonetic science, but is usually reserved for advanced levels of study – and it does so in a novel way that highlights implications not always fully developed even at advanced levels. 

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Sign up for your modules here!

Image from Pixabay

Impatient to get started?

It’s safe to sign up for your first module right away – clicking a green button below just collects your email address and gives you 10 days free access to that particular module.

However, to make best use of your free options, you should know How the site works, understand what’s involved in Joining us and be familiar with other info under INFO – all before signing up for your second module :-).

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Got feedback?

Pixabay
Pixabay

Rethink Speech is new. We’d love to know what you think! Plus we need your feedback to improve the site. Drop us a quick line saying what you liked or didn’t like – and do please mention if you noticed a typo, if something wasn’t working, if some of the navigation got confusing – anything at all, large or small.

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Been denied access to a page?

Please note that accessing some pages requires three stages

  1. You have to be a member in order to log in (more info at 1 below).
  2. You have to be logged in to access members-only material (more info at 2 below).
  3. You have to be signed up to individual modules to see particular pages (more info at 3 below).
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About Rethink Speech

Rethink Speech is developed by Dr Helen Fraser.

Helen is a specialist in cognitive and forensic phonetics: a theorist who has worked on many practical applications in the real world.

Having observed that many problems were caused by our society’s poor understanding of the nature of speech and how it works, she decided to do something about it.

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Contact Rethink Speech

We love to hear from anyone interested in speech or phonetics. Please use the form below for comments, suggestions, questions, ideas – even criticisms (constructive of course!).

In case you are wondering, we are based in Sydney, Australia. Happy to speak by phone or in person. Just make an arrangement via the contact form.

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Why rethink phonetics?

thinking-of-phonetics
Pixabay

Phonetics is the science of speech

You might not find yourself thinking about phonetics terribly much at all – so you might be surprised to hear that at Rethink Speech, we want you to re-think phonetics!

The reason is that how people think about speech affects how they think about phonetics, and how people think about phonetics affects how they think about speech.

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Phonetics? That’s like speech therapy, right?

Phonetics is all about articulation? it's time to turn that idea on its head!
Think phonetics is all about articulation? It’s time to turn that idea on its head!

When (or if) people think about phonetics, one common idea is that phonetics involves describing how the sounds of speech (or ‘phonemes’) are produced (or ‘articulated’) in the mouth. If you hold this idea, you might wonder why anyone would want to do that – and an obvious answer is to help people who have trouble in producing particular sounds, for example, people with a lisp, or people who say ‘rabbit’ as ‘wabbit’.

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How to make a phonetician really sad and frustrated

grumpy-teacherMost phoneticians love to talk about their science. But there’s one reaction that makes us want to lie about our profession. The conversation we dread goes something like this:

  • Hi what do you do?
  • I do research in phonetics, the science of speech.
  • Oh dear, I’d better mind what I say – ha ha – hey George, watch what you say, the pronunciation police are here (etc etc etc).
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Isn’t phonetics a special system that lets you write the sounds of any language?

ipachartc‘Phonetic spelling’, in everyday language, means a way of representing words that gives a clear idea of their pronunciation – as opposed to standard spelling, which often obscures the pronunciation. For example, where standard spelling gives ‘rough’, phonetic spelling might give ‘ruff’.

From this, people often get the idea that phonetics is a more scientific way of doing phonetic spelling.

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OK, so what IS phonetics?

Cher makes a FABULOUS phony Titian – is she also a phonetician? (Image by Ian Smith.)

OK, so if phonetics isn’t any of these things, what is it? Phoneticians often give it a broad but simple definition (yes, experts in phonetics often call themselves phoneticians; and no, that doesn’t mean they are phony Titians, with dyed red hair!)

Simply put, phonetics is the science of speech, in all its aspects.

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Did you know you have a theory of speech? We call it the c-a-t theory

You might think that learning phonetics involves learning some theory about speech. If you are a scholar, you might even think it involves learning several different theories of speech, comparing and contrasting the advantages and disadvantages of each. Indeed those ideas are true – there are a great many theories about speech that need to be learned and evaluated.

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The science of speech vs. speech science

image from wikipedia
image from Wikipedia

We define phonetics as the science of speech. There’s another term that sounds very similar but, though sometimes used interchangeably, often refers to a quite different kind of study. That is speech science. To understand the difference in approach, let’s think a little about what speech is.

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Theoretical vs applied phonetics: Why bringing phonetics to the world means bringing the world to phonetics

Pixabay
Pixabay

Rethink Speech takes the view that there’s nothing so practical as a good theory (or so impractical as a bad one!) – and nothing so theoretical as figuring out the best way to approach a complex, real-world, practical endeavour.

So that gives us a particular view of the relationship of theoretical and applied phonetics – shared by some but implemented by few.

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What is cognitive phonetics?

How do you think about speech? pixabay
How do YOU think about speech? Pixabay

Cognitive Phonetics is the scientific study of how people think about speech.

That may seem a bit paradoxical. If phonetics is a science, shouldn’t it focus on what speech is really like, not on what people think about it?

Well certainly phonetics needs to observe what speech is really like – but doing so turns out to raise a lot of questions about how people think about speech – as we discuss in our Intro.

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Observing speech: What just ain’t so

Image from sciencephotolibrary
Image from sciencephotolibrary

It’s hard to really observe speech in everyday life. We can’t see it, touch it, or smell it. Even hearing lasts only an instant.

Phonetic science allows us to capture speech, and study it in ways most people never experience.

Now here’s the thing

When we observe speech scientifically, we find it is nothing like we think it is like.

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Unknown language

Have you ever listened to people talking a language you don’t know a word of? It sounds like gobbledegook delivered at a rapid pace!

But if we pay attention, there is a lot we can learn from this experience

Here’s an example we can work with. Click the play arrow below to hear 15 seconds of speech in a language you are rather unlikely to know. Read the rest now ...

 

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Scroll slowly through a speech wave

Image from Wikipedia
Image from Wikipedia

Most of the time, we can only listen to speech. After all, it’s invisible, so there’s not much to see!

But phonetic science gives us some ways to look at speech (or at least to look at a representation of speech). That gives a whole new perspective. Read the rest now ...

 

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Backwards speech makes us laugh: Should it make us think too?

Image by lintmachine from flickr
Image by Lintmachine from Flickr

You have probably had the experience of listening to speech turned backwards. Most people can’t resist laughing when they hear it: it sounds like a strange foreign language, possibly Martian. But like most speech fun, turning speech backwards does more than just give us a chuckle. Read the rest now ...

 

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Isn’t this all just sloppy, careless speech? Let’s ask the Queen

Image from wikipedia
Image from Wikipedia

People sometimes think demonstrations like these work only for sloppy, unclear speech, and that they show that speakers should be more careful with their enunciation.

We can agree it is good to speak clearly – but speaking clearly does not involve enunciating each word and sound (phoneme) separately. Read the rest now ...

 

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Does c+a+t really make ‘cat’?

personal collection
personal collection

Here’s a different perspective on the idea that it is only sloppy, unclear speech that is continuous. This time instead of looking for phonemes (individual speech sounds) in already-created speech, let’s try making a word by putting the phonemes together ourselves. Surely if we start with nice clear phonemes, we’ll end up with a nice clear word, right? Read the rest now ...

 

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Practical theory for spoken communication

Rethink Speech offers a new way of thinking about speech. We want to do more than suggest an entertaining way of thinking about speech though. This view of speech gives a practical theory with lots of useful applications in the real world. One of those applications is improving the effectiveness of spoken communication between native and non-native speakers of English, especially helping second language learners with pronunciation.

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Helping with a foreign accent: Some cautions

When we hear someone struggling with English pronunciation, it’s easy for native speakers to feel they know exactly what the problem is. But are we always right in our diagnosis? Here’s some audio you can work through to demonstrate a common example.

First, you might like to try listening to a few non-native speakers attempting a difficult English word (each file less than 1 sec).

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Look mum, no phonemes

Photo credit peter hayward, flickr
Photo credit Peter Hayward, Flickr

The demonstrations in this module – along with many other phonetic observations – show clearly that speech has no breaks or boundaries between words or phonemes.

In itself, speech is a continuous stream of sound.

That goes for all speech, clear or sloppy, in any language, in any dialect - and the simple explanation you might be thinking of doesn't work as well as you expect! Read the rest now ...

 

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No other units either – just ask some babies!

dancing-babyIf you have studied phonetics before (especially in the context of language teaching), you might be asking:

Shouldn’t we be talking about suprasegmentals, not phonemes?

There is something very true about the insight that suprasegmentals (the rhythm and melody of speech) are more important than phonemes. But it is also rather easy to understand it wrongly - as we are about to learn from some cute dancing babies. Read the rest now ...

 

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What you can do when you know

choirThose who were in (or aware of) Australia in 2008 will have a good memory of then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s famous apology to the indigenous people.

Rob Davidson took a one-second sample of Rudd’s words, ‘We apologise’ and made a remarkable musical interpretation. The short video (2:17) gives a good impression. Read the rest now ...

 

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What happens to the phonemes? Good question but is there a better one?

OK, let’s say we accept that speech in itself is a continuous stream of sound, rather than a sequence of words, phonemes, syllables or other units. How should we respond? There are two general approaches – a good one and a better one. Here’s the good one.

How did the phonemes get all messed up and distorted like that?

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Which comes first: the phoneme or the word?

An old conundrum: Which comes first: the chicken or the egg? Image from Pixabay

This module puts a new slant on an old conundrum, while pursuing our quest to unlearn some apparently obvious facts about speech that most of us learned in childhood and have seldom had reason to question. Read the rest now ...

 

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How do you know it’s the same word? Not because it sounds the same!

Image from Pixabay

When we listen to speech, it seems like a sequence of words. But they are not all different words. Quite often we hear the same word repeated, sometimes several times in one utterance. For example if you read this paragraph out loud, you’d repeat the word ‘word’ several times. Read the rest now ...

 

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Counting sounds, and the topsy-turvy world of speech perception

Image from Pixabay

It seems ‘as easy as ABC’ – counting the number of sounds in a simple word. But what is it we are actually counting?

Today's demonstration lets you into the secret. It's not as obvious as you think. Counting sounds may be easy (to those who have learned to do it) but it is certainly not simple. Read the rest now ...

 

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Surprising surprise: Letters aren’t all the same either!

Image from Wikipedia

We’ve seen some demonstrations in this module that most people find quite surprising. Words that are clearly ‘the same word’ actually sound quite different. 'The same phoneme’ has a different sound every time it is pronounced.

Somehow we expect speech to be more like writing, where repetitions of the same word, and the same letter, look the same.

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Word superiority

Image from Pixabay

It seems obvious that we need to hear phonemes in order to hear words. However, this module has given quite a lot of surprising demonstrations to show that's not how it really is. Words rule! We can’t hear phonemes until we can hear words. Read the rest now ...

 

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What should be true but isn’t

Image from Pixabay

It seems easy to accept that we hear words by hearing phonemes. After all,  the idea that the phoneme, or individual speech sound, is the basic unit of speech is part of common knowledge. So much so that it seems perverse to even question it. Read the rest now ...

 

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What is surprise?

Image from Pixabay

Rethink Speech offers you funny, surprising experiences to help you unlearn commonly held false beliefs about the nature of speech and how it works.

To get the most out of these experiences, it is worth addressing a question you may not have thought about explicitly yet: What is surprise?

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A philosophical question – with many delicious layers

Pixabay

If you don’t know Afferbeck Lauder, you should. He was the inventor, or should we say the observer, of strine. Strine is a kind of rendition in spelling of the sound of a very broad Australian English accent. Here’s one of Afferbeck’s less well known pieces, an existential cry of a kind familiar to many teenage (or middle-aged) insomniacs – which also offers a wonderful philosophical insight into the nature of speech and how we understand it.

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Echoic memory, and the surprises you never notice

Does Rethink Speech make you laugh yourself hoarse? (Sorry) Image from Pixabay

Do you groan when you hear a pun? Here’s a very bad one to get you in the mood:

  • A cross-eyed teacher lost her job because she couldn’t control her pupils.

Now puns are great fun – but they also tell us absolutely heaps about speech and how it works.

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Using the surprises: Uncovering the hidden tenets of the c-a-t theory

Image from Pixabay

The surprise that makes the demonstrations in this module humorous comes from the fact that the very same stretch of speech can be interpreted in radically different ways depending on the mindset we bring to it.

Why is that surprising?

Well, because it violates something we think we know for sure about speech, namely, that speech is something objective, ‘there to be heard’, the same for everyone who listens to it.

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